How to care for microplastics: storying microplastic entanglements through a speculative multi-sited ethnography

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Geography


Microplastics are increasing seen as matters of serious concern by researchers, policymakers and individuals. The widespread public attention to this ubiquitous anthropogenic pollutant produced by disconcerting images of choking seabirds and nature documentaries such as Blue Planet II has led to a general 'turn against plastic' worldwide (Mendenhall, 2018; SAPEA, 2019; The Guardian, 13/11/18). Formed by the fragmentation and degradation of larger pieces of plastic, microplastics are 'a complex, dynamic mixture of polymers and additives' (Galloway et al., 2017: 1) which may pose physical and chemical risks across the full spectrum of biological organization (Rezania et al., 2018; Botterell et al., 2019).
As this problem of microplastics is wholly anthropogenic, there is an urgent need for more perspectives which attend to the 'material politics of plastic' as we begin searching for ways of learning to care for and live with microplastics (cf. Gabrys et al., 2013; Vogel, 2009; De Wolff, 2017). To address this gap in the literature, this project aims to conduct a multi-sited ethnography of microplastic science (cf. Latour and Woolgar, 1995; Davies, 2013). Conceptually working through feminist and post-humanist conceptions of care (Barad, 2007; Haraway, 2015; Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017), this project follows researchers who are responding to the problem of microplastics studying the implications of microplastic exposure on marine organisms and the potential of bioremediation respectively in order to learn from the various scales and sites where novel ways of caring about and caring for microplastics are enacted.
Research questions
1.In what ways does an ethics of care and responsibility emerge through the affective and embodied practices of microplastic science?
2.How are microplastics made knowable and sensible in the laboratory? What bodies, practices and materials come-together to perform microplastic materialities?
3.Who or what becomes responsible for the work of caring for microplastics in the sites of microplastics science?
4.How might the framing of microplastic risks in science and policymaking be troubled by a more-than-human conception of care?
The proposed research uses a mixed-method qualitative methodology of repeat in-depth interviewing and multi-sited participant observation to answer the above RQs. Combining these methods to attend to how science is co-produced and performed has a precedent in related research across the geographical and STS literatures (see Latour and Woolgar, 1995; Mol, 2002). This project will be grounded with two epistemic communities pioneering microplastic knowledge in their respective fields. First, a research group based in Exeter led by Professor Tamara Galloway studying the biological effects of microplastics exposure particularly the impacts of bioaccumulation and adsorbed contaminants in marine organisms (Galloway et al., 2017). Secondly, 'Designing-out Plastic Waste' - a project in the UCL Institute of Making studying the potential of 'plastic-eating' bacterium (e.g., Indonella sakaiensis) in a 'fully circular [plastic] economy' (Institute of Making, 2018: Online).
Through sustained periods of participant observation, I aim to attune to the practices and materialities of microplastic (science) (Despret, 2004; Schrader, 2010) and bear witness to the schedules and rhythms of the researchers as well as the diversity of plastic/microbial/animal bodies entangled in the production of microplastic care (cf. van Dooren and Rose, 2016; Greenhough and Roe, 2019). By foregrounding concerns for care and human-nonhuman relationality in this embodied research, I hope it will provide ways of addressing the proposed research questions. The practice of in-depth interviewing here offers an opportunity for me to engage with my collaborators less formally and 'talk about their practices' - specifically about how they response to the problem of microplastics in their embodied lives.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2399814 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2020 30/09/2023 Hiu Chung Shum